US hardens stance on a defiant Iran, raising risk of war and leaving Europe scrambling to protect 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran has lashed out at its European partners in the faltering nuclear deal on Thursday, accusing them of kowtowing to US pressure after Washington imposed more severe sanctions.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the United States had “bullied” European Union nations and he chided them for not living up to their obligations under the landmark 2015 agreement, which curbed Tehran’s nuclear development in return for relief from hard-hitting sanctions.
Earlier on Thursday, the EU rejected Iran’s 60-day “ultimatum” to protect its oil and banking sectors from American sanctions. Tehran said a day earlier it would partially withdraw from aspects of the landmark accord – known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – if EU nations failed to do so.
“EU statement today is why JCPOA is where it is: the US has bullied Europe – and rest of world – for a year and EU can only express “regret“. Instead of demanding that Iran unilaterally abide by a multilateral accord, EU should uphold obligations – including normalisation of economic ties,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Iran’s ally Russia on Thursday denounced new US sanctions on Iran’s mining industry and called for talks to preserve the nuclear deal with Tehran. “We strongly condemn this step,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Because of the “seriousness of what is happening”, Iran and world powers should meet “to determine ways to normalise the situation”, it said.
Iran “scrupulously” carries out its obligations under the nuclear deal and its decision to suspend it partially was a last-ditch effort, the ministry added.
‘Differences of opinion’
The nuclear deal required Iran to curb its uranium enrichment capacity to head off any pathway to developing a nuclear bomb, in return for the removal of most international sanctions. A series of more intrusive UN inspections under the deal have verified that Iran is meeting its commitments.
European countries have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of US sanctions. But in practice, this has failed so far, with all major European firms that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday the EU wants to avoid an escalation in the dispute, adding Tehran must recognise it is in its own interests to remain committed to the nuclear deal.
Merkel highlighted the “differences of opinion with the United States” in her assessment of the Iran nuclear standoff, and said a united Europe is essential in facing the crisis.
“We’re not in favour of an escalation of the situation, but rather on using further diplomatic means,” she said.
“We also know our limits, but the more unified Europe appears … the greater our chances are to perhaps increase the likelihood of realising solutions through talks.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called for the nuclear deal to be extended to cover other issues of concern to the West, such as Iran’s regional policies and ballistic missiles, rather than jettisoned.
“Leaving the 2015 nuclear agreement is a mistake because it is undoing what we have already done. That’s why France is remaining and will remain a part of it and I deeply hope that Iran will remain,” Macron said.
‘Give us a call’
US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, suggested a new nuclear deal could be hammered out if Iran is ready to bargain.
“What I would like to see with Iran, I would like to see them call me,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “They should call. If they do, we are open to talk to them. I want them to be strong and great, to have a great economy. We can make a fair deal.”
“We don’t want them to have nuclear weapons – not much to ask,” he added.
Asked about Trump’s comments, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht-Ravanchi said Tehran had been talking with the six powers involved in the accord, including the US within the framework of the nuclear deal.
“All of a sudden he decided to leave the negotiating table … What is the guarantee that he will not renege again?” Takht Ravanchi said in an MSNBC interview.
The US has deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf, but Trump said Washington was not looking for a conflict with Tehran.
Strike group approaches
The US president declined to say what prompted him to deploy the carrier group to the region over what was described as unspecified “threats”.
“We have information that you don’t want to know about,” said Trump. “They were very threatening and we have to have great security for this country and many other places.”
Trump was asked whether there was a risk of military confrontation with the American military presence in the Gulf.
“I guess you could say that always, right? I don’t want to say no, but hopefully, that won’t happen. We have one of the most powerful ships in the world that is loaded up and we don’t want to do anything,” he said.
Ravanchi dismissed US allegations of an Iranian threat as “fake intelligence”, and said they were “being produced by the same people who in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq did the same”.